Fast-forward through his morning CrossFit workout and past a full day’s worth of meetings, planning sessions, and ice cream sandwich tastings, and Gourdet is finally back doing what he considers himself best at: cooking. Departure is open for dinner, and the head chef is on the line with his team, stir-frying brussels sprouts—an addictive, zingy bit of vegetal heaven, heavy on fish sauce, lime, and mint. Gourdet loves them, and in two days he will serve a vegan version of the dish at Salon for his abstaining patrons. “They’re better with the fish sauce,” he sighs, “but making them vegan is important.”
While other chefs grumble about customers’ dietary restrictions, Gourdet has taken Portlanders’ nutritional demands as a challenge, adding extensive vegan and gluten-free menus at Departure. “From a culinary perspective, it just makes you think differently about what you can use to cook,” he says. “It’s important to feel the pulse of what’s going on here and react to it. It’s a global change. It’s about environmental consciousness. People are more concerned about cancer and allergens and, really, just feeling sick. So, they are concerned about what they eat.”
The chef himself is on the restrictive paleo diet, which cuts out dairy, grains, and legumes in order to re-create the kind of “caveman” cuisine hominids enjoyed for 2.5 million years of evolution before we started raising our own food. “I think people think I’m crazy,” he laughs. He threw Departure’s first special paleo dinner in March.
Around 8:30 p.m., a server delivers a small package for Gourdet as the chef stands eyeballing the fragrant dishes coming off the line. It’s a surprise: a bow tie from Pino, a local menswear company. The note, from Pino owner Crispin Argento, says he thought the chef might like the custom-made silk grosgrain accent to wear to Salon. Gourdet just smiles and slides over to a chatty server who has paused, hot dish in hand, to talk to a line cook. “Go,” he says softly, arching an eyebrow and jerking his head toward the dining room. “Go-go-go.”
One of his two sous-chefs, Benjamin Love, is standing at a nearby butcher block scooping balls of rice dough for date-filled sesame mochi. “He befriends them,” he says of Gourdet’s highly effective management strategy. “It’s better than yelling.”
Tidy as his restaurant kitchen, Gourdet’s Northeast Portland bungalow features a cow’s skull with gold-leaf horns in the living room and a rainbow of more than 100 pairs of Nikes and high heels in his bedroom. The paper numbers he wore during each of his marathons are tacked in a vertical line next to his bed; on the other side hangs a cheap little plastic crown emblazoned with the words “DRAMA QUEEN.” Standing at the kitchen counter, still bleary-eyed from his late night at work, the chef is trying to shove a carrot down the mouth of a shiny silver juicer. The machine groans and whines, producing a tiny trickle of orange liquid for the chef’s morning energy drink. “This is why you never buy a juicer online,” he mutters.
He got sober for a reason. when you make that decision this is what can happen. —Tia Vanich
Gourdet, who is gay, says he’s too busy to date much. Instead, he shares the house with Tia Vanich, his “sassy bestie” and one-woman cheering squad. The pair formed a deep bond after meeting in AA in 2009 and later working together at Bruce Carey Restaurants. Vanich, who produces festivals and events for the music and food world, is also a guiding force for many of Gourdet’s parties, including Electric Summer. That’s the eight-hour, DJ-fueled rager the pair threw for 400 of their food and music industry friends at Rontoms last August, complete with eats from Nong’s and Podnah’s Pit, Jell-O shots, and costumes. Vanich and Gourdet spent $5,000 of their own money to put on the event. Guests didn’t pay a penny.
“Portland’s not a city that stays sober—especially in the restaurant industry,” Vanich says, struggling to explain why she and her best friend go to such lengths to celebrate their community. “He’s a special case. Being in recovery is a huge reason why he is the way he is. You’re excited about life again ... you don’t have any fear anymore. We’ve gone to hell and back. When you’ve done that, why not throw a huge party?”
The next evening, he does. Salon 3.0. is packed; you can’t walk two feet without brushing up against a person who has grown, distilled, baked, or cooked something you’ve eaten in the past two months. Gatherings like this happen elsewhere, but usually with well-heeled foodies paying top dollar to attend and the chefs serving samples. Here, everything is free, and the guests who spend their lives serving food have the night off. Sage Restaurant Group closed Departure to the public for the night, agreeing with Gourdet that it was an opportunity to give back to the community—and to show off the restaurant’s chops.
The chef is sporting that Pino bow tie and a silver lion’s head belt buckle as big as a coaster. Later on tonight, he’ll be at an “insta-dance party” at Dig A Pony, singing and bouncing along to TLC’s “What About Your Friends” with 60 of his nearest and dearest; six days from now he’ll be charming fishermen’s wives at the Portland Seafood & Wine Festival; by next week he’ll have run another 50 miles of Portland pavement and trails.
But, for now, he’s where he’s been for most of the evening: standing near the tunnel-like entrance of Departure, greeting friends—which at this point seems like half the city—a lanky dot of calm in the middle of a music-fueled melee. A server whizzes by with a tray full of those vegan ice cream sandwiches, and Gourdet stops him. “Have you had one of these?” he asks me. “Have another,” he urges in his trademark soft mumble, a big grin splitting his face. “Just have ... more.”